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The Morrison Government's anti-democratic response to COVID-19

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Cartoon by Mark David/@mdavidcartoons.

Looking at Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it would be easy to conclude that Australia has taken a political U-turn.

For decades, we have heeded the mantras of small government, globalisation and deregulation. All that changed with COVID-19

Massive government spending, closed borders, and intrusive regulations have become the order of the day. Some even labelled Morrison’s actions as socialist

While on the surface, this may appear to be a radical departure, the Government’s response to COVID-19 has intensified a much more established and dangerous dimension of the Australian conservatism.

It is not a dedication to small government that defines this politics, it is a love of power and a bitter disdain for democracy.

With the benefit of a large country with a relatively low population density, political decisions made in Australia to control the pandemic have been largely successful. This is commendable, but it has come hand in hand with the amplification of a wanton disregard for democracy and its principal institutions.

The first example was the suspension of the Federal Parliament. Rather than trust the deliberative power of democratic debate, Morrison created a state of exception to the normal democratic process. It may have been politically unimaginative, but it revealed a desire for the very kind of sovereign power that democracy is designed to curtail. The head of government is not a king, but it appears he aspires to be.

In a state of exception, the machinations of democracy are portrayed as a pesky interference to the manly pursuit of getting things done. Better the single-handed power of the patriarchal leader whose word is not questioned in public.

Parliament did eventually resume, but other dimensions to the Government’s assault on democracy remain in place. The utter contempt shown to the ABC is a case in point. While public broadcasting has long been a chief enabler of citizen participation in political life, for the Government it is nothing more than an obstacle to be overcome. 

Government funding for the ABC has been attacked consistently since the mid-1990s. The public reliance on the ABC for unvarnished advice and news on the pandemic has done nothing to halt government scorn. 

The ABC is an institution that does, and by its charter should, operate independently of commercial and political influence in order to bolster Australian democracy. So what happened with COVID-19? At the time of need, the budget cuts to the ABC were kept in place, while tax relief was offered to commercial broadcasters.

Clearly, there is a broad divide between government power and democratic values. For the Government, the latter appears to be an impediment to the former. Democracy is the loser. Political parties are an essential part of Australian democracy, but they are not its primary institution and certainly not its protector, especially now.

Democracy, above anything else, requires difference to be valued and nurtured so that freedom and equality can be pursued without domination by the powerful. The idea of a government by the people is, of course, an ideal that has never been fully realised, but it is the pursuit of that ideal that marks the democratic political ideal.  

How the Federal Government has treated universities during COVID-19 is especially revealing of lost democratic idealism. Universities, democratic institutions that have endured decades of public funding cuts, are being given an extra bashing in pandemic times.  

Forged on the values of free inquiry and freedom of thought, universities have increasingly been reduced to quasi-corporations operating as an export industry. In Australia, this has been remarkably successful, at least based on economic criteria. Before COVID-19, Australia’s education exports were worth almost $40 billion.

Despite the Government’s insistence on the priority of economic recovery, COVID-19 has revealed that an ideology of power is even greater than one of business. The commercial catastrophe of closed borders for education exports has done little to displace the Government’s active antinomy to universities

International students in Australian have been denied government support and told to "go home". At the same time, the Government has bent over backwards to make sure that universities cannot benefit from the JobKeeper program to protect their future.

This is a paradigmatic example of how power-chasing politics trumps both the promise of democracy and a commitment to the management of the economy. The JobSeeker exclusion was described as a "final twist of the knife".

Wounding democratic institutions was clearly the priority, despite the clear economic risks.

This is not just a matter of Morrison having an authoritarian leadership style. It is about de-institutionalising democracy in order to enhance the singular power of the ruling elite. Even worse, if Morrison’s peaking popularity ratings are anything to go by, Australians are largely supportive.

Strong-arm politics is all the rage. Reasoned public debate and placing democratic limits on political power is not. All that matters is winning elections.

Never let a good crisis go to waste? The Government has not. As much as human lives are at stake, so is the way that humans will live.

If politics is reduced to a street fight for power at the expense of democracy then we will emerge out of COVID worse off as a society. Let’s not use this crisis as a way of sacrificing democracy.

Carl Rhodes is Professor of Organisation Studies at the University of Technology, Sydney. You can follow him on Twitter @ProfCarlRhodes.

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